Thursday, September 9, 2004
Luongo passes good-team test
By EJ Hradek ESPN The Magazine
TORONTO -- It's much tougher to be a good-team goalie then a bad-team goalie. Team Canada stopper Roberto Luongo found that out when he replaced an injured Martin Brodeur for Saturday's exciting 4-3 overtime win over the Czech Republic in a World Cup semifinal tilt at the Air Canada Centre.
Roberto Luongo finally got a taste of what it's like playing behind a good team.
"It was the biggest game of my life," said Luongo, who made 37 saves, including a monster shoulder stop on Czech right winger Milan Hejduk at 3:22 overtime.
That save became a game-saver just 23 seconds later when Canada center Vincent Lecavalier made Luongo a winner, beating Czech stopper Tomas Vokoun with a second-chance wrister from a bad angle.
"I just found out this morning that I was playing," an exhausted Luongo said. "But I'd been getting ready since Thursday. I think I was more nervous before the game started then before the overtime started."
Asked if he'd like to play in Tuesday's gold-medal clash with Finland, Luongo quickly responded, "Definitely." After a cooling off a bit, Luongo changed his answer to a more cliché-ish, "it doesn't matter as long as we win."
In his still young NHL career, playing behind dreadful New York Islanders and Florida Panthers teams, Luongo has been the quintessential bad-team goalie. As such, he has often been brilliant in defeat, facing a multitude of shots each time while his bad goals are overlooked. He has rarely had to play with the pressure of protecting a one-goal lead in a big game.
On Saturday night, he was a good-team goalie, tending net for a team full of all-stars. Good-team goalies -- like Brodeur -- can be the goat in any loss. They have little margin for error. They're called upon to make a critical stop after being idle for several minutes at a time and they're vilified for even a single mistake.
Luongo does have a bit of good-team experience on the international level. He backstopped a silver-medal winning Canadian team at the 1999 World Junior Championships. At the 2003 World Championships, he came off the bench to replace an injured Sean Burke, helping Canada win gold. Last May, he won another World Championship gold medal as a starter.
In this World Cup, however, the stakes are higher. So with Brodeur sidelined by a wrist injury, Luongo skated into Canada's pressure-cooker of a crease. Despite being out-played by the determined Czechs, Canada staked Luongo to a 2-0 second-period lead.
"You never want to give up a goal, but especially in a game like this when you have the lead," Luongo said.
Just 42 seconds after Mario Lemieux made it 2-0, Luongo surrendered a questionable, bad-angle goal by Petr Cajanek, cutting the lead in half. It was the type of goal that a bad-team goalie gives up. The type of goal that gets lost in a 45-save, 5-2 loss.
"I thought he was going to make a pass so I slide over a bit, but it got under me," Luongo said.
At 7:21 of the third period, with Lecavalier serving a holding penalty, Czech right winger Martin Havlat buried a rebound of a Tomas Kaberle blue-line blast to tie the game.
And the pressure was on.
Luongo responded a few moments later by making an acrobatic stop with his left pad and glove on the dangerous Hejduk from just outside the crease. His good work was rewarded when center-turned left winger Kris Draper ripped a slapshot over the glove of Vokoun, who seemed to be cheating a bit to play a potential pass.
Luongo's second lead of the night didn't last too long. In fact, it lasted just six seconds. Off the center-ice faceoff, Havlat pushed the puck over Canada's blue line. On a quick attack, Czech left winger Patrik Elias found a loose puck and fired a 35-foot wrist shot through a screen and over Luongo's right pad to knot things at 3-3.
"The shot came through a screen," Luongo said.
Yes, it did come through a screen, but it was a shot that has to be stopped in a big game. It was a shot that's difficult to imagine getting past Brodeur in that situation.
In overtime, though, Luongo got the chance at redemption. Just 1:30 into the extra session, Luongo stoned left wing Martin Rucinsky on the doorstep. Ninety seconds later, he turned back a Havlat shot from the top of the left circle. Then, he made his scrapbook stop on Hejduk to set up the win.
"I slid over with the pass across and I just tried to get squared to him," Luongo said. "It hit me on the shoulder."
At the other end of the rink, Vokoun suffered the bitter defeat when he couldn't scramble to his feet in time to stop Lecavalier. Vokoun, who went from bad-team goalie to good-team goalie in Nashville, felt Luongo was the difference on this night.
"I didn't feel so much pressure during yesterday or while we were waiting to play, but unfortunately today the goalie on the other side was better and that is the reason they won," Vokoun said. "They capitalized on their first real scoring chance in the overtime. I didn't feel great in the game. Sometimes, you're on and feeling good and you follow the puck well, and today I didn't have it. It's tough when it means so much."
Good-team goalies make the right saves at the right time. On this night, Luongo did just that.
EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.